We’ve confronted a lot of issues connected to diversity and inclusion in youth literature and I have to say this most recent bout with Penguin Random House (PRH)and Barnes and Noble is the most ridiculous thing yet. Didn’t you think we’d moved beyond this? I did!
If you’ve missed it, the two companies paired up to employ AI technology to identify “classic” books with characters that were void of racial identity. They planned to release the books to celebrate Black History Month. There was to be a celebratory kickoff in New York City and copies sent to area schools, thinking that these new covers would entice students to read the books. After developing a list of titles, they created five different covers for each book, each with individuals representing a different racial or ethnic group. The stories themselves did not change.
A few problems.
- The images were mired as much Whiteness as the novels they were slapped up.
- The Eurocentric stories selected for this endeavor contain elements of racism, hegemony and patriarchy.
- Stories told by white authors were once again promoted over those told by marginalized writers.
- ‘Diversity’ isn’t about making situations appear to be inclusive.
- ‘Diversity’ is a social construct, not an economic one.
- Students aren’t that gullible.
I do admit I’m missing several intricacies here. I would suggest scanning David Bowles Twitter timeline for a very thorough layout of what transpired.
Needless to say, there was much pushback to this campaign on Twitter and within 24 hours it was cancelled. PRH made public that there would be financial contributions and pledges however, it is not known what they’re doing internally to educate themselves. In a big move in 2019, they hired Annysa Polanco to head their diversity initiatives. A big move indeed, but one person of color cannot change a company’s climate. Work compiled by Jason Low (Lee & Low Books) and Dr. Laura Jimenez demonstrates how little is changing inside the industry. How can companies so resistant to working alongside of Native Americans, People of Color, LGBTQIA people or those with disabilities be expected to diminish its commitment to the bottom line and develop one for the children for whom they’re creating books?
One more time: Diversity isn’t just about the books.
We can call it diversity, inclusion, social justice, decolonization… we can keep changing the terms as they become corrupted, but many of the marginalized know our expectations remain the same.
I saw a Tweet stating we must remain vigilant. When do we get to do the good work of creating new opportunities for ourselves rather than cleaning up someone else’s mess? Is the new labor of being woke a new form of enslavement? Tiring, tiring work! Whiteness has tainted us all; we’re all continually waking and those on the journey are doing the work for self and for others. Tiring, tiring work.
Truth: “Every shut eye ain’t sleep and every brown eye ain’t woke.”
I think of the amazing work that has been done since Arna Bontempts (the father of modern Black children’s literature) and Langston Hughes began pushing back 100 years ago. There has been insightful writing, painful physical labor and small acts of resistance that librarians, educators, scholars, parents, social scientists and even children have produced in that time span that has been ignored or misunderstood. Misunderstood? Yes. Remember, the racism of the 21st century is that of implicit bias. Understand this concept and you can understand how PRH/BN managed to create such a debacle and why racialized monkeys in picture books persist. Read the work of Dr. Jennifer Eberhart or Dr. Dolly Chugh to begin to understand your own biases. And, I direct that statement at everyone, not just White people, because we’re all growing up, waking up, in this taint of whiteness together. I found Eberhart’s Biased quite eye opening about my own thoughts and actions. We all forget that as Jewish scholar Emma Lazarus said, “None of us is free until all of us is free.”
I’m kinda proud of my little blog series this month where non Black writers, scholars, educators and librarians are sharing some of their favorite books for young readers. It’s just a little reminder that we are indeed all in this together, trying to be free. And, it’s some of the good work I can do. I hope you’re reading and enjoying it.